Housed in the old Pepperell Mill complex in Biddeford, Maine, the new Saco River Dyehouse will take up a small section of over 1,000,000 square feet of old mill. (Imagine!). At first glance, the space looked depressing and cavernous. The windows had been filled in with brick, the flourescent overhead fixtures buzzed, the paint was peeling, dusty old filing cabinets and chairs filled the entire space. Ugh.
Still, around the corner in another wing, one could see potential.
At one time, this mill employed hundreds of workers. Powered by the Saco River, the first mill, a seven-story wooden structure built in the early 1820′s, was the largest in the country. The company employed hundreds of workers, mostly single young women who left their rural beginnings for town and a factory job. According the local museum, protecting these young workers, newly arrived from the country and unfamiliar, with urban life was a civic concern.
Picture it. The ‘room’ above was chock full of looms. Instead of a vast open space, every inch housed a piece of equipment or a person. And the windows from floor to 20′ ceiling provided all the light. The windows were spaced 8′ apart and on sunny days in the summer, the light coming through must have been a trial for crowded workers. Winters, the sun pouring through probably provided most of the heat that wasn’t generated by those same bodies.
In the early 1830′s the original mill burned down. But shortly after, a new, larger, brick building was constructed, and the company, impressively, processed cotton from plant through fabric–mostly colored plaids that were unique in the industry. By mid-19th century, immigrants from everywhere came to Biddeford to work in the mills–this one and others in the area. The current sleepy town was at that time a bustling small metropolis.
Don’t know about you, but I love the history that comes with our new dye house. I’m searching out some then-photos, will post them soon.